by Emma Rosewood
Delano, Calif. – A 30-year-old transgender woman serving a prison sentence in California is seeking clemency from Gov. Gavin Newsom after witnessing acts of “brutal, senseless violence,” the Bay View learned from an online petition started by the Transgender Advocacy Group.
Syiaah Skylit, who has been incarcerated since 2015, is currently housed at the Kern Valley State Prison, an all-male facility in Delano, Calif. CDCR records, which indicate Skylit being housed at the Mule Creek State Prison in Ione and list her under a deadname, appear to be outdated. Her earliest parole date is listed in April 2027.
Activists say Skylit has been a victim of numerous attacks at the all-male facility in Delano. Skylit says her life is at risk due to “transmisogynist violence” permitted by the California Department of Corrections.
“I’m not going to make it out of this prison alive if I’m left here any longer,” Skylit said in June 2020. Since 2018, while in custody at the Kern Valley State Prison, activists and lawyers say Skylit has been subjected to “severe and persistent” physical, sexual and psychological abuse.
Documents say Skylit has been threatened with sexual assault via baton by a member of prison staff, attacked by other inmates at the command of CDCR employees, and has been placed in the same yard as inmates who have a history of attacking their LGBTQ neighbors.
A man killed transgender inmate Carmen Guerrero after informing guards that he would kill her if they were housed together.
The petition adds that Skylit experienced discrimination for holding a hunger strike, had her phone calls restricted and has had property stolen and destroyed by CDCR staff.
The allegations from Skylit aren’t the first time that the Kern Valley State Prison has been in hot water. In 2018, a man killed transgender inmate Carmen Guerrero after informing guards that he would kill her if they were housed together. The man was sentenced to death; however, the damage done within the prison walls was permanent.
Last spring, Skylit testified against a man who attacked another transgender woman in custody. In October, that same man was moved two cells down from her. Skylit’s legal team says she is “terrified” that the man will be given cell access with her and fears she will succumb to the same tragic fate as Ms. Guerrero.
“This is not an isolated incident. CDCR continues to retaliate against Syiaah and other trans women who report sexual assault.” the Transgender Advocacy Group stated.
Skylit previously filed a complaint of discrimination under the provisions of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act, according to public records obtained by the SF Bay View.
In the complaint, filed in April of 2019, Skylit alleged that she had faced discrimination on the basis of her sex and gender identity.
I was placed in Administrative Segregation, which is solitary confinement, with only one hour outside of my cell for exercise, but my attacker was not.
“I am Syiaah Skylit, a transgender woman who is incarcerated at Kern Valley State Prison, a men’s prison. My legal name is Jonathan Robertson and my California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation number is AY5276,” the document reads.
“On multiple occasions, most recently in March 2019, I requested a transfer to a women’s facility. Since 2017, I have been transferred to six different institutions, but not to a women’s prison. The continuing denial of my requests for appropriate housing denies me equal benefits of a state-funded program and denied me equal terms and conditions in housing because it places me at a higher risk of being assaulted than the risk faced by inmates housed in facilities that are congruent with their gender identity.”
Skylit goes on to detail the particular discrimination she listed as having experienced prior to June 19, 2019: “After I was attacked in October 2018, I was placed in Administrative Segregation, which is solitary confinement, with only one hour outside of my cell for exercise, but my attacker was not.
“Due to my greater risk of being attacked while in a men’s prison, I have been subjected to multiple rule violations and punitive stays in Administrative Segregation, which I believe are in retaliation for my requests to be housed in a women’s prison and also due to bias against me as a transgender woman. The unequal application of Administrative Segregation impacts not only my emotional health but also denies me an equal opportunity to participate in prison employment.”
The Transgender Advocacy Group published a final brief on her petition, expressing hope and optimism to their cause: “We as Syiaah’s community and chosen family are ready to support her with a safe and successful reentry plan if Governor Newsom uses his executive powers to grant her clemency. Organizations that can offer Syiaah comprehensive reentry support including housing and employment upon her release include TGI Justice Project, Transgender Advocacy Group (TAG) and Medina Orthwein LLP.”
Skylit’s online petition has around 5,000 signatures at the time this article was written.
Emma Rosewood is an abolitionist reporter covering the carceral system living on stolen Nisenan land. Follow her on Twitter @olddressdevil.